I have a new frame, a new construct, a new living memory for what grace is.
Which is extraordinary, because grace is such a cornerstone concept for people of faith. Grace is God’s orientation, relation. Grace is God’s approach to us and with us. Grace is the heart and the gift and the offering, so profound that in some Christian traditions it takes on a sort of subjecthood, a personhood, an existence. Some warp it into a perimeter, a limited space for a limited few. But grace, I believe, is relationship and community and wonder and safety and wide open space.
And grace is profoundly transformative.
Growing up, I was so often given a specific definition of grace that hearing the word in my mind immediately brings the response: unmerited favor.
God’s grace is favor. It is goodness, maybe even preferential goodness, to me. On the dangerous side is the way that slant of the word can slide toward my superiority, my worthiness over and above and against some other person. On the miraculous side, grace can somehow actually create worth in its recipient, can actually confer and beget and birth and call forth value in me. In you.
That “favor” does come with the modifier “unmerited”. I don’t merit it. I don’t deserve it. I don’t do anything to justify its existence in me. And here there are precipices on (at least) two sides. On one we plummet down a crevasse of self-incrimination and self-punishment, reminding ourselves always that we don’t deserve, we aren’t enough. This fights the very power of the word it is modifying. And on the other side is this strange abyss where we trick others and ourselves into a life of humble-brags, where we try to demonstrate by certain social-spiritual behaviors that clearly we must possess this grace, because see, look what I’m doing. And we thereby work hard to earn the unearned-ness.
When Jesus speaks grace into existence, it often carries a lot of seeking, striving, working. But the foundational pivot that we often slip to the wrong side is that Jesus always speaks of grace as God’s striving, not ours. Grace is the woman frantically sweeping her home to find the lost coin, the shepherd clawing through thorny vines to find that one wandering lamb, the elderly, broken-hearted parent endlessly scanning the road for any sign of the wandering child’s return. Grace is God seeking us out in order to shower love upon us. Grace is found-ness. And grace seems to call forth a community’s celebration when the coin is found or the child returns or the lamb is rescued. Which means grace is personal, and grace is communal. Grace is God’s nature and character, and so it’s one of the things we can expect to find the Spirit replicating in us, we God-bearers, we imitators of Christ.
I’ve lived a long season of Lent. A journey of release, of giving up, of grieving what has been lost. It’s important work, necessary work.
Last May, in the heart of the slog, our kids and our people surprised us with a scavenger hunt and a party and a gift so overwhelming, so over the top, that I just kept shaking my head and then burying it in my hands and my lap. “We can’t take this. We can’t take this.” Over and over those words went through my head, as I couldn’t wrap my mind around a gift of love that was such a magnitude of offering beyond anything deserved.
Truly, profoundly “unmerited favor.”
People I love sacrificed and gave so that Elaine and I could go to New Zealand. And for months after the party, I couldn’t get myself to think or plan or dream about the trip. I was blocked. Stuck. I could not walk into that perimeter. I finished serving as pastor and everything I had stuffed, everything that was lost, everything that had hurt…it became the entire space I inhabited. Loss of what had been shut out what could be. What was lacking in my life overwhelmed the good that was there.
I had to do that work. Oh let’s be real, I’m still doing that work of naming and releasing what I wish was still here day in and day out. But as Elaine and I ticked off the days and crept closer and closer to boarding the plane for our adventure, I talked candidly about wanting to shift. Wanting to move toward thankfulness, toward gratefulness for what is. To search and to find…favor. To find the grace I believed (with knuckles white with straining!) had to be there.
It was the morning of our second full day in New Zealand. Elaine was driving us through the heart of the South Island. We wound our way out of Christchurch, out of industrial zones, out of farmland and vineyards. We started climbing, curving our way into wilderness and light and snow-dusted peaks rising out of azure water. And I laughed. I cried. I thought of more than a hundred people at home who literally chose to take money they earned and hand it to us so that we could smell this, see this.
The next day we sweated our way on foot, past skittish sheep, up switchback trails to stand on Isthmus Peak. I spoke as many of the names of people that I could remember, spoke them out loud as the wind buffeted us at the top. Thank you Rachelle and Stephanie and Natalie and Hayley and Aubrey, thank you Michelle and Alan and Steve and Diane and Elizabeth and Steve, thank you Lisby and Jon and Di and Bruce and Carol and David… I spoke for far longer and with far more names than I’ve written (so yikes don’t be offended if I left you out here; I know how many and I have gone through the list since I’ve been home and I have named you ALL).
It was like breathing in grace. Wading in grace. Drinking and sleeping and eating in grace.
I mean, I lived a 36 year old dream when I landed a six pound native brown trout on a dry fly. My shoulder literally ached with the strength of that beast, and the throbbing pain was grace. How do you open your mind and heart enough to comprehend people taking the dream of a lonely 13 year old moping in a school library, and then giving that dream to the almost 50 year old man he became? How do you accept and integrate that special and unique and wondrous expression of love?
As overwhelmed as I was by the surprise in May, this was more. We inhabited the space of grace, and it has transformed me.
We’re back in our normal (scratch that, our new normal) world. I got sicker than sick for weeks after we returned. I’ve still had my moments of crying and grieving and questioning and frustration.
I breathe grace.
I choose to name out loud the gifts of this new normal life.
I choose to write or speak a prayer of thanks each day.
I celebrate the Giver and givers of good gifts, my God and my community.
And my thankfulness to Giver and givers is so difficult to put into words. (This is me trying.)
Thank you for giving me a living memory where we inhabited grace.